“The future of broadcast television is mobile” (part three of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”)

The following post contains the third of six installments of my essay-in-progress From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and “the Future of Television.” For part one, as well as an introduction to this project, click here. For part two, which lays out the essay’s theoretical and historical contexts, click here

“The future of broadcast television is mobile”[i]

Mobile network operators’ multimedia ambitions led them into new markets, as well as into new portions of the radio spectrum. In these spaces they encountered old partners under new circumstances, but also institutions that they had limited experience in dealing with. Amongst the latter were broadcasters, a group that shared mobile network operators’ interest in the possibility of delivering television programming to mobile devices.

Whereas mobile network operators’ multimedia ambitions were driven in large part by their industry’s growth imperatives, broadcasters’ interests in mobile television were survival oriented. The period of the mobile industry’s rapid growth coincided with the unravelling of the hegemony of American network broadcasting (Lotz, 2007). As mobile network operators’ subscriber rolls expanded, American broadcast networks’ cumulative share of the national television audience fell precipitously, from approximately 75 per cent in 1985 to 43 per cent in 2010 (Seidman, 2007). Broadcasters’ advertising revenues followed this downward trend, spurred by the ascendance of cable, the advent of new commercial-skipping technologies such as the digital video recorder (DVR), and the economic downturns that bookended the 2000s. The local affiliate stations that together comprise the national broadcast networks were particularly hard hit by the industry’s downturn. While most of these stations continued to be profitable, their future viability became a subject of much debate within the popular press and within the industry itself (Schechner and Dana, 2009). Questions about the sustainability of free-to-air broadcast television were broached with increased frequency (and urgency) in the press during the 2000s. A 2006 IBM Business Consulting Services report captured the pervasive sense of crisis surrounding broadcast television in this period. “Today is the beginning of ‘the end of TV as we know it,’” the report explained, “and the future will only favor those who prepare now” (IBM Institute for Business Value 2009, p. 1).  Amongst those not expected to survive this paradigm shift were broadcast stations, which, as one journalist put it, appeared to be “head[ed] for extinction” (Wasserman, 2004).

As these debates over television’s future – and free-to-air broadcasting’s lack of one – unfolded, the owners of the nation’s more than one thousand broadcast television stations did as the mobile network operators discussed above and began to explore alternatives to their traditional business models and revenue sources. The range of options available to them was more diverse than ever before, thanks again to legislative intervention. As discussed by Lisa Parks in her contribution to this volume, every local broadcast station in the United States was required in this period to convert its facilities to the nation’s new digital television broadcasting standard, or DTV. When crafting the rules governing this changeover, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had been extremely charitable toward free-to-air broadcast stations. In addition to granting each station what essentially amounted to a rent-free lease on a second channel for the duration of the conversion (allowing them to simultaneously transmit in analog and digital), the FCC also refrained from placing stipulations on how stations would use their digital channels. Stations were at liberty to use these channels as they saw fit, provided they continued to offer at least one free-to-air channel that adhered to the vague public interest principles that govern the licensing of free-to-air broadcasting in the United States.

The potential uses of these new digital channels were many, and included high definition broadcasting, multiple channels of standard definition broadcasting, subscription channels, wireless data services, or mobile television transmission. While the majority of local stations elected to use their digital channels to transmit high definition video, mobile television held a particularly strong appeal for broadcasters (Dickson, 2007a; Whitney, 2009). Having initially been shut out of the deals that broadcast networks struck with companies such as RealNetworks, Apple, and Google to deliver their programming via the Internet, station owners appreciated the opportunity that mobile television presented to directly tap into a new and potentially lucrative revenue stream (Dickson, 2007b). Broadcasters’ investments in mobile television also promised the return of substantial symbolic dividends. By insinuating themselves into the incipient mobile multimedia market, broadcasters stood to remediate their own and their industry’s reputations at a time when both were suffering. Bolter and Grusin (2000) contend that remediation often entails the reform (or more precisely the rhetorical rehabilitation) of one medium by another, as when a new medium’s promoters present it to the public as an improvement or upgrade on an already established medium. They write: “Each new medium is justified because it fills a lack or repairs a fault in its predecessor, because it fulfills the unkept promise of an older medium” (p. 60). Although the very possibility of this reform is predicated upon an acknowledgement of the perceived inadequacies of an older medium, as an institutional practice remediation may also involve the rehabilitation of an older medium’s tarnished reputation. Material and/or figurative associations with new media may imbue familiar ones with a sheen of novelty, and even may provide new justifications for their existence. Through these associations, “old media” may shed their customary uses or their sedimented cultural meanings, in a sense becoming “new” once again.

In the case of mobile television, the nation’s beleaguered broadcast industry had much to gain from an association with the mobile communications industry, which despite having its own economic problems nevertheless continued to enjoy a reputation for innovation within policy circles, the investment sphere, and public opinion. The pressures on broadcasters to reform their industry’s image were particularly acute during this period. The steady stream of popular media reports forecasting the impending demise of free-to-air broadcasting placed the national networks and their affiliate stations in a position in which they were continuously required to answer questions about their health and relevance. Another source of pressure originated from within policy circles. The costly and protracted conversion to DTV exacerbated anti-broadcasting sentiments that had been percolating within think tanks, academic departments, and media watchdog organizations for quite some time by this point.[ii] Local stations’ repeated failures to comply with the deadlines specified by the FCC’s conversion timetables resulted in the postponement of the commission’s reclamation of analog television’s portion of the radio spectrum. These delays prolonged stations’ rent-free leases on their second channels, blocking the transfer of the analog television spectrum to the mobile communications companies and public safety organizations that had obtained the rights to occupy it following the conversion’s completion.

The economic and public safety ramifications of these delays resulted in a wave of negative publicity for the broadcast industry. Would-be users of the spectrum joined policy experts and media activists in demanding a reexamination of the terms under which the FCC licensed broadcast stations. Some proponents of reform made more radical recommendations, which included for instance “Tak[ing] TV off the air” and reallocating its spectrum to more “efficient” or “intelligent” uses (San Miguel, 2008). The crux of many spectrum reformers’ arguments was that broadcasters – a group that, according to one spectrum reform advocate, had grown so complacent that “its idea of a major innovation is the miniseries” (Platt, 1997) – were squandering the immense value of one of the nation’s most important and valuable resources. Signals transmitted in television’s portion of the radio spectrum travel long distances, and are capable of passing through walls and other obstructions, making them attractive for a wide variety of potential uses, and extremely valuable on the open market. Proponents of spectrum reform estimated the cumulative market value of broadcasters’ spectrum holdings to be upwards of $60 billion, and projected that in the hands of more “innovative” users this spectrum could generate an additional $1 trillion in benefits for the country in the future (Eggerton, 2009). As the DTV conversion dragged on, and as the American economy sunk into recession, proponents of spectrum reform found support for their platform within the FCC and the White House. Following the election of President Barack Obama, who had pledged during his campaign to make universal broadband Internet access a priority of his administration, the FCC began formal investigations of the feasibility of comprehensive spectrum reallocation.[iii]

Under pressure to demonstrate to an increasingly unsympathetic policy community their worthiness of the choice spectrum they occupied, the nation’s broadcast station owners scrambled to ready a free-to-air “mobile DTV” standard that would enable them to simulcast their channels to handheld devices. Though for the time being mobile DTV remained “vaporware” – that is, a product that is under development thus exists only conceptually or in a prototype stage, this did not stop broadcasters from trying to sell the public and the policy community on its importance. John Caldwell (2000, p. 6) describes the routine practice of promoting vaporware as “both a corporate theoretical exercise and a marketing high-wire act.” Broadcasters in this period busied themselves with both activities, working on the one hand to stoke anticipation for a product that was still years away from being ready for the market, and on the other hand to establish a theoretical framework through which to understand the future. Unsurprisingly, this theoretical framework was buttressed by the structuring ideologies of free-to-air broadcasting, which since the early twentieth century have included localism, liveness, and public service (Boddy, 1990).

In the various speeches, public service announcements, and press releases industry lobbying groups such as the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) made the case that this vaporware represented the best bet of ensuring these cherished principles’ survival in the “digital  future” (Whitney, 2005). But in addition to reasserting a commitment to free-to-air broadcasting’s structuring ideologies, these groups also highlighted the important contributions a healthy and innovative broadcasting industry would make to this future. For instance, a 2010 press release issued by the OMVC stated that:

The emerging Mobile DTV platform is the natural evolution of television and is an indispensable part of the nation’s broadband solution. In the public policy debate over spectrum allocation, we urge Congress and the FCC to carefully consider the essential role Mobile DTV can play as a resource for emergency alerts, as a source for vital public information, and as an ingredient in the country’s broadband future (RBR, 2010).

The broadcasting lobby’s defensive maneuvers played liberally with linear chronology: by hyping a throwback mobile DTV standard that was not yet ready for commercialization, broadcasters made retro vaporware a central element of their efforts to rhetorically create for themselves and for their industry the future that their critics argued they lacked. But despite the assuredness that characterized these lobbying campaigns, a sense of desperation persisted around mobile DTV, growing stronger as its development dragged on. As one trade journalist observed, “Mobile DTV provides a means for broadcasters to remain relevant in the 21st century. That’s important, for if broadcasters don’t use their spectrum efficiently to serve the majority of the population, there are many other companies out there willing to pay a high price for that spectrum” (Lung, 2009). Amongst the many groups circling broadcasters’ spectrum were mobile network operators, whose multimedia ambitions hinged upon their annexation of it.


[i] The source of this quote is media industry analyst Christopher Kent, quoted in Waldman (2008).

[ii] Amongst the proponents of radical spectrum reforms were George Keyworth of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, legal scholar and FCC advisor Stuart Benjamin, and Michael Calabrese of the New America Foundation.

[iii] At the conclusion of these investigations, the FCC recommended transferring 500 MHz of spectrum immediately, and an additional 300 MHz in the future, from broadcasting to mobile communications (FCC 2010b, pp. 75-9). To clear broadcasters from this spectrum, the FCC proposed a number of measures, ranging from “repacking” television into a different portion of the radio spectrum, reducing the amount of spectrum assigned to each broadcaster, and giving local broadcast stations the option of forfeiting their channels in exchange for a portion of the proceeds they generated at auction.

Continue to part four: “Emergent technologies, residual protocols”

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About fymaxwell
Max Dawson is a Los Angeles-based media consultant and professor.

3 Responses to “The future of broadcast television is mobile” (part three of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”)

  1. Pingback: Emergent technologies, residual protocols (part four of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”) « fytelevision

  2. Pingback: “Real TV, now on your phone” (part five of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”) « fytelevision

  3. Pingback: The uncomfortable proximity of convergence (part two of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”) « fytelevision

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